air travel health issues

I was standing in a security line at the Chicago O’Hare Airport on an otherwise mundane (read Monday) day.  There was an elderly looking gentleman standing in front of me striking up conversation with a very attractive woman. O’Hare security lines go at snail speed compared to my favorite airport in Atlanta, which meant, I was privy to this gentleman’s braggery for next 15 minutes.

“I have 10 million miles as of this year” he said at one point.

Did I hear “10 million”? my ears perked up.

I think the lady had the same reaction as well and she inquired “did you say 10 million?”  Of course the braggart not only had 10 million flying miles – he had a big Galaxy phone to whip out and show off.

I love traveling, so secretly I was envying him. 5 minutes after this braggery, the gentleman pulled out a pill from his pocket and popped it in while still bragging about his worldly adventures and made a passing comment “recently flying is making me sick and this pill helps me add those miles without throwing up”.

Light bulb went on- A question popped up in my head: are there any health risks of flying or more specifically, frequent flying?

Turns out – there are!

Here are the most common health hazards that may afflict most flyers but are more prone to frequent flyers.

1) Of Bacteria, Bugs, Viruses and all that is not slimy: Low humidity with a trail mix of people from around the world is a perfect party place for the bacteria, virus and bugs of all kinds.  Some bugs that are totally alien to your immune system may also be lingering in air brought on by alien visitor, thus, making them difficult to defend against.  Vaccination helps in many instances, especially if you are flying to a zone that is more prone to diseases that can be avoided.  You may have witnessed the Ebola scare in 2014/15 years, although mostly media hype, there are many diseases that are actually carried around the world by frequent and not so frequent flyers.  It’s like we invented this flying machine to help cross pollinate the viruses and bugs around the world.

Health@work tip: Always get vaccinated, where feasible.  Have immune boosting pills handy. Spike up your vitamin C intake.

2) Blood clots: Lack of stretch area in the flight (unless you are traveling in the first or business class) sometimes leads to traveler’s thrombosis. Essentially – when you sit in a congested area for long duration – blood clots may form in the lower abdomen/thigh areas and sometimes these clots travel to lungs or heart or brain causing serious health hazard.

Health@work tip: Wearing loose clothes, walking around the aisle in the flight or going King’s class – all help.

3) Too many jet lags can make you dull, grumpy and…: Body can recoup from a one-off jet lag in few days.  If you continue to put stress on your body by exposing it to multiple jet lag filled weeks, you may become prone to travel fatigue in the short term and cognitive difficulties in the long run.Lancet report found that travel toward East creates more jet lag than travel to west and older travelers are affected by jet lag much more than younger travelers.

Health@work tip: Can you replace some of your travel with alternatives like video conferences, skype calls, screen shares etc?

4) Space radiation: That term is not from a sci-fi flick. Your body may be exposed to same amount of radiation it does during an X-ray when you take a international flight. For example: London to Chicago flight could deliver 4.8mrem radiation while a chest X-ray delivers between 2mrem to 10mrem. Although not conclusive, some research has linked males developing cancer and females developing melanoma and breast cancer to frequent exposure to space radiation.

Health@work tip: Planning  your route seems to help with this although you may have to shell out few extra bucks.

5) Food can kill you: It would be nice to get miles just by sitting in a place, but it doesn’t work that way – you reach destinations far from home. And when you eat the food outside your country and if you don’t know what goes into making it – it can be potentially dangerous or cause death. Unlike in US, most countries around the globe do not require listing of complete ingredients, especially nuts and spices, that goes into making the delicious looking death trap on your plate. If you are allergic to Peanuts for instance and you order spicy coconut gravy chicken in Malaysia – there is a chance that you may risk your life because of peanut paste added in it.

Health@work tip: Always confirm what’s in your food before you take a morsel. Let them know that you are allergic to certain type of foods and will cause serious allergic reaction if you ate ‘xxxxx’ – that will get their attention.


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